What the horse-meat scandal says about food culture in the UK


Jokes about ’mystery meat’ ready meals are proving to be rather more prescient than we might might be entirely comfortable with. It seems we’ve been suffering from a spate of horse meat lasagnes, spaghetti sauces and other processed meat products. And for who knows how long? Certainly everything points to an entrenched trade in illegal meat.

Putting aside the desirability of eating horse, the rather more worrying (for me) aspects of mislabelling, what really strikes me is how this shows the degree to which people in the UK – and possibly elsewhere in Europe – seem to have lost touch with the food they eat.

Horse meat, whether or not you actually enjoy eating it, tastes different to beef. And yet if reports are to be believed, we’ve been eating “beef” lasagne that’s 100% equine. And no one, not one single person, seems to have noticed. Until tests brought it all to light.

All of which would seem to indicate two things. Firstly, the meat used in these products has been adulterated and flavoured to point that it’s almost impossible to taste the difference between horse, beef and pork.

There is no argument that the meat used comes from economically (e.g. factory farmed and/or well past their prime animals) viable sources. Animals that are bred not for flavour but for heft, pumped full of antibiotics and who live a miserable life. The end result is so ground up and laced with flavour boosters, preservatives and other chemicals it all blends into one generic “meat” flavour.

The second, and in some ways sadder to me, is that we have become so divorced from the food chain, so removed from the actual production of what we eat, that we are no longer able (or care enough) to distinguish the taste of different meats.

Everything points to a general lack of understanding about where meat comes from and what it tastes like. I have read so many optimistic articles about the fact that the UK’s food culture is getting better. But on recent evidence, I don’t think that’s the case. Sure we buy lots of celebrity recipe books and eat out a lot. But all that really tells me is that we can follow directions on how to make things and on where to go.

For all the interesting food blogs and great little shops I see, the fact is that the UK is buying more and more processed food. And I can understand why. If you work long hours for little money, when do you have the time or resources to cook? It’s becoming a lifestyle choice rather than a fact of life. No wonder we’re in the midst of a growing diet-related health crisis.

Maybe that’s a very negative view to take, but these last two weeks – with the papers full of equine scandal – have brought the point forcefully home. We don’t really know what the food we’re eating should taste like. We’ve been eating random mixed meat labelled as “beef” for years, and yet no one was able to tell the difference between that and real dead cow.

5 Responses to “What the horse-meat scandal says about food culture in the UK”

  1. Mr Noodles

    It’s all very depressing. But as my Mum says, ‘don’t buy anything you haven’t someone mince first’.

  2. shuhan

    great article. this is precisely why I don’t liek shopping at the supermarket. I’m not being snobby at all, I just really think it’s good to know where your food comes from, so you can eat and sleep with peace of mind. it’s good I work at the farmer’s market, I know for sure my produce comes from trustworthy sources, but I guess for mos tpeople, convenience is the first on their mind :(

  3. The Grubworm

    @Mr Noodles, that is a good point, and if you can’t see it being done, you need to be able to trust whoever does it. Looks like the supermarkets are scrambling to keep the trust of their shoppers. And with good reason.

    @shuhan – I agree totally! I always like to know where my food comes from. But I have seen little anecdotal evidence of outrage among consumers, most of the froth is coming from the papers. Which again, reinforces my impression of the apathy people have toward food.

    I wonder if they found that “beef” was being replaced by quorn instead of horse – where the issue would be of perceived value instead of health/taste – the reaction would be the same?

  4. The Grubworm

    Thanks @michelle. The whole industrialisation of food, while having upsides in the spread of different ingredients, is causing so much disconnect between us and our food. It makes me sad.

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